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Recently, the IMF published its long-awaited Article IV consultation on Greece which includes an assessment of the latest developments of the Greek economy as well as its own DSA on Greek debt (which rests on significantly different assumptions than the ESM DSA).

The IMF starts with a stark chart showing how the Greek tragedy compares to the US Great Depression, the 1997 Asian crisis as well as the Eurozone crisis:

IMF Greece Crisis US Great Depression Asian Crisis

The depth of the Depression is quite similar to the US case while Greece has managed to «maintain» a 25% lower GDP for a period of 5 years.In contrast, even the US managed to return to its pre-crisis GDP level 7 years after the start of the Great Depression. This is a clear indication of the way the Greek case was tragically mismanaged by the European countries and the IMF whose priority was avoiding a principal haircut of official loans rather than a quick return of Greece to growth.

The IMF projects that Greece will grow moderately during the 2018-2022 5-year period which also coincides with the period during which the country will have to register primary surpluses of at least 3.5% GDP. Most of the growth is projected to come from fixed investment with private consumption contributing 0.5% annually and a neutral contribution from the foreign balance:

IMF - Greece 2018 - 2022 main macroeconomic projections

As I have outlined in the past, such a growth path rests on the assumption that Greek households will continue dis-saving at the order of €9bn annually even while they have already depleted their financial assets by €34bn in the 2011-2017 period. This is based on the fact that, given a neutral external balance and a 3.5% primary government surplus, sectoral balances indicate that the private sector will need to maintain a negative net asset position in order for the other sectors to achieve these balances.

Projecting nearly 1% annual increase in private consumption during the 2020 – 2023 period without any countervailing factor (such as a positive external balance or a significant relaxation in the fiscal stance) seems quite optimistic. An annual negative balance of just €8bn means that households will have to consume another €40bn of their financial assets in the 2018-2022 period. Only employment growth (which will increase disposable income of the household sector) will act as a countervailing force. It’s a pity that the IMF does not use sectoral balances to check whether assumptions for private consumption and government surpluses can be realistic in the long-run.

The other important part of the IMF document is obviously the Greek debt DSA as well as its assessment of the possibility of maintaining large primary surpluses for many decades.

In its baseline scenario the IMF staff agrees with the ESM that debt-to-GDP trends down and Gross Financing Needs (GFN) remain below 15% of GDP in the medium term.

Nevertheless, the IMF argues that Greece will be unable to maintain a primary surplus larger than 1.5% of GDP after 2022 while its long-run economic growth will hover around 1% in start difference with the ESM which is projecting a primary surplus of 2.2%. As a result, the IMF is much more pessimistic for the long-run, projecting that Greek debt will become unsustainable after 2040:

IMF - Article IV 2018 DSA

What is also quite interesting is how even medium-term sustainability rests on assumptions of large primary surpluses and growth during the 2018 – 2022. A small 2 year recession during 2019-22 (with a total of -3% GDP growth) coupled with a small primary deficit for just one year will immediately push debt-to-GDP close to 200% and GFN to 20%.

IMF - Adverse Scenario 2019 - 2022 Greek Debt

Lastly, the IMF staff try to justify analytically why Greece will be unable to maintain high primary surpluses and economic growth in the following years. While the specific arguments have been put forth many times in the past, it is interesting to repeat them here once more (in IMF exact wording):

  • Ceteris paribus, aging would imply an average yearly decline of 1.1 percentage points in Greece’s labor force during the next four decades.
  • Total factor productivity (TFP) growth over the last 47 years averaged just ¼ percent annually, by far the lowest in the Euro Area. Assuming this historical average TFP growth rate going forward, labor productivity (output per worker) would grow only at about 0.4 percent in the steady state (the rate of TFP growth adjusted for the labor share in output).
  • Combining the historical growth in output per worker of 0.4 percent with expected growth in the number of workers of -1.1 percent would imply long-term annual growth of -0.7 percent.
  • While studies have documented an impact on output levels of 3 to 13 percent over the initial decade, the impact of reforms on growth tends to fizzle out afterwards.
  • Lifting long-term growth from its baseline of –0.7 percent to 1 percent requires reforms to add 1.7 percentage points to growth per year for the next decades. The OECD (2016) estimates that full implementation of a broad menu of structural reforms could raise Greece’s output by about 7.8 percent over a 10-year horizon, which translates into an increase in annual growth of some 0.8 percentage points for about a decade. Bourles et al. (2013) estimate this gain to be slightly higher, at about 0.9 percentage points per year, while Daude (2016) finds that reforms focused on product markets and improving the business environment in Greece could boost growth by about 1.3 percentage points per year for a decade.
  • Implicitly, the 1 percent growth projection presumes that Greece would manage to increase labor force participation to levels that exceed the Euro Area average (to offset the significant projected decline in Greece’s working age population) and that would generate TFP growth rates permanently far above Greece’s historical average.
  • Historically, Greece has been unable to sustain primary surpluses for prolonged periods. During 1945–2015, the average primary balance in Greece is a deficit of about 3 percent of GDP, although a brief period of near-zero primary balance took place at the time of Greece’s EU accession. The high water-mark for Greece was a primary surplus exceeding 1 percent of GDP during eight consecutive years (1994–2001).
  • In a sample covering 90 countries during the period 1945–2015, there have been only 13 cases where a primary fiscal surplus above 1.5 percent of GDP could be reached and maintained for a period of ten or more consecutive years.
  • Economic conditions matter. Among EU countries, before entering a period of high average primary balances, countries tend to have strong real GDP growth (2.7 percent) and modestly high inflation (4 percent). They also have moderate unemployment (10 percent) and low net foreign debt (24 percent of GDP), conditions that do not conform to those now applying in Greece. Moreover, during the high primary balance periods, growth has been rapid (about 3.4 percent), inflation slightly elevated (3 percent), and unemployment contained (at about 7.2 percent). This suggests that sustained periods of high primary surpluses are driven by strong economic growth rather than by sizeable fiscal consolidation.
  • Unemployment weighs on the budget through higher social expenditures—such as for unemployment benefits and social safety nets—as well as lower income-related revenue. Greece’s unemployment rate is exceptionally high—only 10 countries have had unemployment higher than 20 percent in the postwar period.Within the above sample, the average primary balance corresponding to countries suffering double-digit unemployment rates is about zero percent of GDP (i.e. balance). For double digit unemployment lasting for 10 years or longer, the average primary balance is about -½ percent of GDP. With long-term unemployment likely to remain high for some time, pressures on social assistance spending in Greece—such as the guaranteed minimum income—are likely to mount.

Overall, the IMF tries its best to provide Europeans with political cover for the medium-term outlook on the Greek front while still presenting a scientific case for why the targets set in the Greek program are highly unrealistic and will not be achieved. In my view it should pay closer attention to sectoral balances which would make it even easier to argue why large primary surpluses cannot be maintained in a country with a structurally negative external balance.

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As I ‘ve highlighted many times in the past, the level of future long-run primary surpluses for Greece plays a major role in the debt sustainability scenarios. The major difference between the IMF and Euro institutions projections is identified in the primary surplus assumptions. The IMF projection for a 1.5% surplus makes debt restructuring necessary while the European institutions assume much higher primary balances which make debt sustainability more favourable.

IMF vs Euro Institutions Greek DSA

A recent ESM paper on Greek debt reveals the importance of these projections. If Greece achieves 3.5% primary surplus until 2032 and 3% until 2038 no debt restructuring is required as long as economic growth is 1.3%. On the other hand, the IMF scenario of 1% economic growth and a primary surplus of 1.5% after 2022 makes Greek debt explosive.

European institutions try to make the case that episodes of large and sustained primary surpluses are not uncommon in European modern history. The ECB especially highlights the cases of Finland and Denmark as well as other countries:

The European Central Bank says such long periods of high surplus are not unprecedented: Finland, for example, had a primary surplus of 5.7 percent over 11 years in 1998-2008 and Denmark 5.3 percent over 26 years in 1983-2008.

and

ECB - Selected Episodes of large and sustained primary surpluses in Europe

My comments are twofold. First, the average primary surplus figure is not always equal to the year-by-year primary balance. Denmark achieved a primary surplus equal or higher than 5.3% in only 5 years during the 1983 – 2008 period. Actually, the primary surplus was at least 3.5% during 9 of the total of 26 years.

Yet the most important element that is not highlighted in the above cases is the fact that large primary surpluses were achieved in the context of equal or (mostly) higher current account surpluses. This is highly important since it allows the domestic private sector to achieve a positive net asset position even when the public sector is in surplus. As a result, economic growth is not threatened by the public sector and the private sector maintains a healthy balance sheet.

To illustrate the above I ‘ve «corrected» the primary surplus by subtracting the current account surplus. I ‘ve also deliberately set the vertical axis maximum to 3.5% which is the surplus requested from Greece to illustrate the fact that it is almost never achieved.

corrected primary balance for current account - selected high surplus episodes.jpg

On the contrary, of the total of 60 years in the above episodes, 26 had a negative corrected primary surplus while it was lower than 1.5% in 40 years illustrating the fact that the IMF assumption of a 1.5% surplus is not unreasonable.

Since the Greek cyclically adjusted current account is highly negative it is clear that the assumption of high primary surpluses which will be maintained for decades is almost without precedence in the context of the private sector balance. Assuming a 3% nominal growth rate (based on the IMF assumption of 1% growth), a 10 year 3.5% primary surplus is equal to a 30% GDP transfer from the domestic private sector while a 20 year 3.5% surplus is equal to 52% GDP transfer which will not be counterweighted by a current account surplus.

In my view, the European institutions continue to make assumptions consistent with avoiding explicit costs for Greece’s creditors but inconsistent with economic reality and sectoral balances.

So it seems that Europe and the IMF have found a way to guarantee the presence of the latter in the Greek economic program. The SMP and ANFA profits of the Greek bonds held by the Eurosystem (which are no longer returned by European governments to Greece) will be used as a guarantee for the IMF loan repayments.

These profits amount to more than €10bn in total up to 2020 while the total amount currently due to the IMF is 11.3bn in SDRs (about €14.3bn at current exchange rates).

amounts-to-be-transferred-by-european-central-banks-eurosystem-from-anfa-and-smp-profits

Since the IMF insists that only a 1.5% of GDP primary surplus is reasonable in the long-run (for Greece), my assumption is that this amount (which currently stands at €2.7bn annually) will be added to the SMP/ANFA profits and provide a guarantee for the IMF (in effect the IMF will have a senior claim on these financial resources). The IMF needs to be able to guarantee its repayment (either through such measures or by maintaining the the Greek debt is sustainable with high probability) in order to stay in the Greek adjustment program.

That way the Europeans will be able to include the IMF in the Greek program without having to satisfy its recommendations for a long-run primary surplus of 1.5% GDP and a larger debt restructuring. This is made easier by the IMF itself who insists that only a 1.5% surplus target is realistic (politically) but if Europe wanted to avoid it then it would have to impose further consolidation measures on the Greek budget. These include more cuts on pension expenditures, a reduction of the exemption on income tax and lower public wages (a total of €4.5bn in additional cuts).

The end result will be that Europe will avoid having to perform any serious debt restructuring in the short-term, include the IMF in the Greek program and face the 2017 election cycle without serious concessions to the Greek side. It will insist on maintaining the 3.5% surplus target for the foreseeable future and place (again) all the adjustment burden on Greek shoulders regardless of the fact that such a target makes no economic sense.

The IMF view that Greek debt was unsustainable, the surplus targets unrealistic and serious debt restructuring necessary did briefly open a window for the return of economic logic in Europe. My feeling is that this window is quickly being closed by Europe which will insist on maintaining the current unrealistic course just because the alternative is difficult politically.

Yesterday the IMF released its debt sustainability analysis for Greece based on developments during 2015 (but not including the bank holiday and capital controls imposed after the referendum announcement). I consider it a very important document mainly because it shows (probably for the first time) how the basic assumptions of the adjustment programs were terribly optimistic and significantly disconnected from reality. It is also the first time that I know of that the IMF includes a (highly probable) scenario which requires Europe to write off part of Greek official debt (basically the Greek Loan Facility of €53bn) in order for the latter to become sustainable. It seems that the IMF has decided to catch up with reality. Having its largest ever program in arrears probably also played a role.

The first part of the analysis describes how some of the developments since June 2014 improved debt sustainability. These include:

  1. Lower interest rates future path due to easing of monetary conditions in the Euro area which contribute a total reduction of €23.5bn in Greece’s debt up until 2022.
  2. The return of the HFSF bank recapitalization buffer of €10.9bn. Obviously the IMF is not being honest in this point since the buffer will be needed in one form or another for further capital injections in Greek banks and/or for the creation of a bad bank to clear NPLs.
  3. Intra-governmental borrowing of about €11bn to cover debt repayments which the IMF assumes that 2/3 will be sustained for the indefinite future by rolling over this short-term borrowing. This action will lead to an improvement of the debt-to-GDP ratio of 5% GDP.

On the other hand weaker GDP performance and downward revision of historical GDP contributed to an increase by 4% GDP of the 2022 debt-to-GDP ratio. Overall, taking all the above developments into account would improve the 2020 debt ratio to 116.5% (from a projection of 127.7% in the June 2014 review).

Yet at the same time the IMF has to acknowledge reality which includes much lower primary surplus targets, lower privatization proceeds, lower GDP growth, clearing arrears and rebuilding buffers as well as paying down a part of the short-term intergovernmental borrowing. This reality results in a total of financing needs of €52bn from October 2015 up to 2018 with the 12-month forward financing requirements from October 2015 amounting to €29bn.

Let’s take a closer look at a few aspects of ‘reality’.

First of all, primary surplus targets have been reduced from 3% for 2015 and 4.5% for 2016 onwards to 1% during 2015, 2% for 2016, 3% for 2017 and 3.5% for 2018 and beyond. Although in my opinion Greece should only be looking at the structural (cyclically adjusted) primary balance with official lenders taking the risk of short-term economic developments, these short-term targets are obviously much closer to the actual reality on the ground.

What is quite impressive is how the IMF has revised down its privatization proceeds targets. Projected privatizations were €23bn over the 2014-22 horizon yet only €3bn materialized during the last 5 years (the ‘fire sales’ argument of the current Greek government). As a result, the IMF now has much lower (and reasonable) targets of annual proceeds of around €500mn over the next few years. The magnitude of the targets revisions in each review is interesting:

Projected Annual Privatization Proceeds

What is the most important part of the document in my opinion is the analysis of long-term economic growth. The IMF acknowledges that its long-term growth target of 2% was unattainable and conditional on unreasonable assumptions and has now been updated to a still very ambitious target of 1.5%. It is clear from the document that even this target will most likely be missed. Only short-term targets based on closing the output gap and subject to a return of confidence are attainable in my opinion. In the words of the IMF itself:

Medium- to long-term growth projections in the program have been premised on full and decisive implementation of structural reforms that raises potential growth to 2 percent. Such growth rates stand in marked contrast to the historical record: real GDP growth since Greece joined the EU in 1981 has averaged 0.9 percent per year through multiple and full boom-bust cycles and TFP growth has averaged a mere 0.1 percent per year. To achieve TFP growth that is similar to what has been achieved in other euro area countries, implementation of structural reforms is therefore critical.

What would real GDP growth look like if TFP growth were to remain at the historical average rates since Greece joined the EU? Given the shrinking working-age population (as projected by Eurostat) and maintaining investment at its projected ratio of 19 percent of GDP from 2019 onwards (up from 11 percent currently), real GDP growth would be expected to average –0.6 percent per year in steady state. If labor force participation increased to the highest in the euro area, unemployment fell to German levels, and TFP growth reached the average in the euro area since 1980, real GDP growth would average 0.8 percent of GDP. Only if TFP growth were to reach Irish levels, that is, the best performer in the euro area, would real GDP growth average about 2 percent in steady state. With a weakening of the reform effort, it is implausible to argue for maintaining steady state growth of 2 percent. A slightly more modest, yet still ambitious, TFP growth assumption, with strong assumptions of employment growth, would argue for steady state growth of 1½ percent per year.

Greece Real GDP and TFP Growth

What the IMF also acknowledges is that any serious ‘return to markets’ from Greece will quickly make the current debt figures unsustainable because higher market rates will not be consistent with debt sustainability. As a result, in order for official creditors to avoid haircuts, more financing will be needed with concessional financing and a doubling of the grace and maturity period of loans.

It is unlikely that Greece will be able to close its financing gaps from the markets on terms consistent with debt sustainability. The central issue is that public debt cannot migrate back onto the balance sheet of the private sector at rates consistent with debt sustainability, until debt-to-GDP is much lower with correspondingly lower risk premia (see Figure 4i). Therefore, it is imperative for debt sustainability that the euro area member states provide additional resources of at least €36 billion on highly concessional terms (AAA interest rates, long maturities, and grace period) to fully cover the financing needs through end–2018, in the context of a third EU program (see also paragraph 10).
Even with concessional financing through 2018, debt would remain very high for decades and highly vulnerable to shocks. Assuming official (concessional) financing through end– 2018, the debt-to-GDP ratio is projected at about 150 percent in 2020, and close to 140 percent in 2022 (see Figure 4ii). Using the thresholds agreed in November 2012, a haircut that yields a reduction in debt of over 30 percent of GDP would be required to meet the November 2012 debt targets. With debt remaining very high, any further deterioration in growth rates or in the medium-term primary surplus relative to the revised baseline scenario discussed here would result in significant increases in debt and gross financing needs (see robustness tests in the next section below). This points to the high vulnerability of the debt dynamics.

In particular, if primary surpluses or growth were lowered as per the new policy package—primary surpluses of 3.5 percent of GDP, real GDP growth of 1½ percent in steady state, and more realistic privatization proceeds of about €½ billion annually—debt servicing would rise and debt/GDP would plateau at very high levels (see Figure 4i). For still lower primary surpluses or growth, debt servicing and debt/GDP rises unsustainably. The debt dynamics are unsustainable because as mentioned above, over time, costly market financing is replacing highly subsidized official sector financing, and the primary surpluses are insufficient to offset the difference. In other words, it is simply not reasonable to expect the large official sector held debt to migrate back onto the balance sheets of the private sector at rates consistent with debt sustainability.

Given the fragile debt dynamics, further concessions are necessary to restore debt sustainability. As an illustration, one option for recovering sustainability would be to extend the grace period to 20 years and the amortization period to 40 years on existing EU loans and to provide new official sector loans to cover financing needs falling due on similar terms at least through 2018. The scenario below considers this doubling of the grace and maturity periods of EU loans (except those for bank recap funds, which already have very long grace periods). In this scenario (see charts below), while the November 2012 debt/GDP targets would not be achievable, the gross financing needs would average 10 percent of GDP during 2015-2045, the level targeted at the time of the last review.

If grace periods and maturities on existing European loans are doubled and if new financing is provided for the next few years on similar concessional terms, debt can be deemed to be sustainable with high probability. Underpinning this assessment is the following: (i) more plausible assumptions—given persistent underperformance—than in the past reviews for the primary surplus targets, growth rates, privatization proceeds, and interest rates, all of which reduce the downside risk embedded in previous analyses. This still leads to gross financing needs under the baseline not only below 15 percent of GDP but at the same levels as at the last review; and (ii) delivery of debt relief that to date have been promised but are assumed to materialize in this analysis.

What is also important is that a reasonable scenario which includes of long-term growth close to 1% and a medium-term primary surplus target of 2.5% of GDP would require a haircut by official lenders:

However, lowering the primary surplus target even further in this lower growth environment would imply unsustainable debt dynamics. If the medium-term primary surplus target were to be reduced to 2½ percent of GDP, say because this is all that the Greek authorities could credibly commit to, then the debt-to-GDP trajectory would be unsustainable even with the 10-year concessional financing assumed in the previous scenario. Gross financing needs and debt-to-GDP would surge owing to the need to pay for the fiscal relaxation of 1 percent of GDP per year with new borrowing at market terms. Thus, any substantial deviation from the package of reforms under consideration—in the form of lower primary surpluses and weaker reforms—would require substantially more financing and debt relief (Figure 7).

In such a case, a haircut would be needed, along with extended concessional financing with fixed interest rates locked at current levels. A lower medium-term primary surplus of 2½ percent of GDP and lower real GDP growth of 1 percent per year would require not only concessional financing with fixed interest rates through 2020 to cover gaps as well as doubling of grace and maturities on existing debt but also a significant haircut of debt, for instance, full write-off of the stock outstanding in the GLF facility (€53.1 billion) or any other similar operation. The debt-to-GDP ratio would decline immediately, but “flattens” afterwards amid low economic growth and reduced primary surpluses. The stock and flow treatment, nevertheless, are able to bring the GFN-to-GDP trajectory back to safe ranges for the next three decades (Figure 8).

If one includes the fallout of the bank holiday it seems that we have clearly reached the end game. A recession during 2015 along with a low primary surplus will make the current DSA a bit outdated. Deciding to base the DSA on actually achievable targets (which in my opinion only include the ‘adverse scenario’ of 2.5% primary surplus target and 1% long-term GDP growth) will mean that Europe will (finally) have to consider a debt write-off. That is the economic reality on the ground. The way that the official sector reacts to it and the targets it (tries to) sets for the new Greek medium-term program will say a lot about who will bear the costs of further adjustment. In my view the policy of ‘externalizing’ the costs on the Greek economy and ‘extend and pretend’ is almost over, at least in democratic terms. Unfortunately, now will be the time of the politicians, name calling and trying to place the blame on the other party.

PS: It is also quite strange how the IMF puts such high value on ‘structural reforms’, when its own research shows that, at least ‘reforms’ that do not include more funding of investment in high-skilled labor, R&D, ICT capital and infrastructure but target the usual suspects of product and labor market have negative short-term and neutral long-term effects (labor market) or only marginally positive results (product markets). Only financing of serious investment in R&D, ICT capital and (to a lesser part) infrastructure can result in substantial effects on long-term TFP growth.

Short and medium term impact of structural reforms on total factor productivity

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Kostas Kalevras

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